Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Leaden Finger Gamer’s Review: Valiant Hearts – The Great War

On the year-end episode of the video game TV show Good Game the presenters Bajo and particularly Hex raved about a game called ‘Valiant Hearts’. They considered the game to be a great way to learn about the events and experiences of World War I, while carrying some definite emotional impact. Having played the game myself recently I would say that they were spot on.

‘Valiant Hearts – The Great War’ is primarily a two-dimensional puzzle game, with some simple action sequences, set mainly in France and Germany during World War I. You alternate between four characters – with one helpful dog – though the gameplay is fairly similar for each of them. The main two characters are Emile, a soldier in the French army, and Freddie, an American volunteer, and you also play as Karl, Emile’s German son in law, and Anna, a Belgian nurse. The puzzles mostly involve lifting things, moving things, digging for things, and the like, though the sequence in which you acquire things is important. As far as puzzles go these are not as elegant as those in ‘Portal 2’, but they are generally clever and enjoyable.

The game was inspired by a series of letters written during the war, and these really strengthen the story behind the game. For most of the people alive today, including me, there is less connection to what people experienced during World War I than World War II or even the Vietnam War. ANZAC Day in Australia, as important as it is, is generally more about symbolism than in bringing out those experiences (and at worst reduces into cliché). Though stylized, ‘Valiant Hearts’ made me feel closer than I ever had to ‘experiencing’ the Great War, making a concerted effort to capture the details of life during wartime. Pop-ups provide further information about important battles and other events, features of wartime such as trenches and barbed wire, and items that had particular significance for the era. IGN reviewer Daniel Krupa somewhat accurately, though disparagingly, referred to these as ‘Encarta ’95-style footnotes’, and found them ‘too insistent and a bit irritating’. Many commenters took him to task for this, and I agree that their intrusion is fairly minimal; the player can skip all of these if they wish.

For my reviews of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘The Wolf Among Us’ I suggested that they could be thought of less as games and more of as a new form of graphic storytelling. ‘Valiant Hearts’ too, in style and its emphasis on story, seems like a comic strip in which you are a more active participant in the story-telling. It certainly uses the iconographic techniques of comic strips, with pictures often substituting for spoken language. However I don’t want to take the analogy too far, and suggest that this is a new medium that sits outside the two categories. People would definitely call it a game; in its use of ‘closure’ (the gaps between successive images) it is still a fair distance away from sequential art. I still could see these types of games starting to substitute for comic books and strips in the future though.

With my leaden gaming fingers I like these ‘one-button’ games, and unlike games where I fight for seemingly hours against tough bosses I am only a peek at a ‘walkthrough’ away from being unstuck. There is about ten hours of gameplay here, which is a good length for a game of this type. Regardless I found myself immersed in this game from pretty much start to finish, and it is a great way for anyone to discover more about this era of history.

P.S. That is my last post for 2014, having reached my goal of 120 posts for the year. See you in 2015!

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